For both Infinite Jest and 2666, I wrote posts about front matter. I’ll do the same for Moby-Dick. At the beginning of the book, you’ll find a list of extracts from other works of literature that treat of whales. What a curious thing this seems upon a first read. Is it an extended set of epigraphs? Is it something that you really need to read at all? Should it be front matter or should it be an appendix (if it should even be there)?
The London publishers seem to have had similar questions, for they placed the extracts at the end of the book. At the time of the book’s publication, there were issues with getting a copyright in England on previously published work. To skirt these issues, it was apparently the habit of American authors to publish their books first in London and then, a week or a few weeks later, in America. So Melville sent his book off to the care of his London publisher, who proceeded to have the book corrected. The corrections weren’t limited to adding that wacky extra “u” to words like “color,” though. The book was downright bowdlerized, with a number of diction changes and with certain scenes removed or edited so as not to offend the religious (and other) sensibilities of the British reader. One chapter was removed wholesale because it was considered less than flattering to the crown. Perhaps most shockingly, the epilogue was removed, and with it any satisfying closure. (Oh, there was closure alright, but it wasn’t satisfying, and plenty of London critics latched onto this false ending in their criticism of the book.)
There’s speculation that moving the extracts to the end of the book may actually be responsible for the lost epilogue, the single sheet lost amid the many pages of extracts as they were moved. The move seems to have been something close to catastrophic for the reception of what must have seemed to that audience like an unfinished book.
But the shifting of the extracts seems all wrong to me for another reason as well. Placed at the beginning of the book, the extracts set a sort of tone. They establish the book almost as a compendium or encyclopedia or reference work, which in fact to some degree it is. They make something of a grand statement about what’s to come. A book that has epigraphs (of a sort) from so many important prior works must itself be very grand indeed. And they say something about the obsessive cataloging of whales and whaling in the book. A work that foregrounds such extracts is the work, perhaps, of an obsessed mind, or at least a thorough one. To understand the world may not be possible, but to catalog it is to some degree possible and perhaps represents a way of understanding the world.
Moving the extracts to the end relegates that sheaf of pages to the status of appendix. Here they become simply extra information, an optional chunk of text for the aficionado rather than a sort of invocation. In fact, maybe Melville’s extracts serve a similar purpose to that of the invocations of the great epics, suggesting that the extracts represent in a way what he’ll be writing about, but with a subtext that he’s improving, or at least expanding, on them. What better muse to invoke than the greats who have written of whales in the past?
To move the extracts, then, was to remove a vital structural, tonal, formal element that sets up expectations for what is to come.
Also worth noting, in terms of setting up expectations, is the form in which the book was bound and published. It was the habit of the period in England to publish romances (different meaning than at present) in three volumes. Moby-Dick was so published, though it was by no means your typical romance. Accordingly, purchasers may have expected one sort of book and gotten another sort altogether.
So, then. Are the extracts required reading? I have to admit that I found them a bit tiring when I first encountered them. I might have skimmed. Maybe they’re not entirely necessary, or maybe it’s not necessary to read them intensely. Still, it’s worth considering why they’re there and how they set up the text. It’s worth trying to imagine how one might receive the work differently without the extracts. How thoroughly will you read them, if at all?